Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Open Doors in a Shutdown Town

Paul Brown 
As the nation’s political hub, Washington has always been a rough-and-tumble place. Harry Truman famously told us long ago that if we wanted a friend in Washington to get a dog. I’m a cradle Episcopalian who drifted away from the church in my twenties while becoming more immersed in the political side of Washington life. I worked on Capitol Hill during the week and spent a lot of Sundays at home grumbling at the morning public affairs shows, hoping for enlightenment, but growing cynical and dismayed at the posturing that passed for political dialogue. I returned to active church life in my thirties in large part because of my kids. But I also came back because my church community became a welcome respite from the cynicism and spiritual punishment of daily political life in Washington. 

I’m writing this as official Washington is in the throes of another self-induced fiscal crisis. The government shutdown has a lot of people on edge, nowhere more than in our diocese where dedicated federal employees are pawns in another political fight. I went through the last shutdown in 1995-96 as a Senate leadership staffer, deemed essential even though I remember a lot of waiting around for the handful of people in a real decision-making role to reach an agreement in a room I wasn’t in. When it was over, I thought a lesson was learned and it wouldn’t happen again. 

Seventeen years later, I’m in a private-sector government relations job watching it happen again. Political discourse and our thread of shared communal values have only frayed since the ‘90s. I’m not immediately affected this time but no one in our community is spared, especially the federal workforce. 

I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish about how the diocese and our church communities can ameliorate this breakdown in our national civic culture. But we also can’t avoid the impact of decisions that people who don’t live full-time in our diocesan community are having in our local churches and our individual lives. 

The uncertainty caused by budget sequestration and furloughs has already seemed to force some parishioners to scale back on pledges and financial commitments. Even if the shutdown ends soon, federal budget constraints will not ease any time soon and that will trickle-down to the local level. We’re called to be even better stewards of our limited resources and to give even more prayerful consideration to what our priorities will be in the future. 

I’ve always been proud of the ecumenical role that our National Cathedral community plays in the nation’s public life, from the solemn pomp of state funerals to the platform that our leadership is given on social justice issues. The National Cathedral is a beacon in dark times in our nation’s history, a shining symbol of unity and inclusiveness. The Bishop opening the garden last week to shutdown-endangered weddings was in this spirit and spot-on, I thought. 

Our individual churches can, and do, serve the same function in a complicated, divisive crisis like the one we’re in now. High-level political fights tend to de-humanize individuals in the service of larger ideological goals. When we open our doors to all comers, when we encourage positive dialogue, when we listen to people who worry and are in pain and need, we set an example for those in political power and give spiritual and material sustenance to those impacted by their decisions. While respecting the great diversity of faith traditions, Washington needs even more of what the Episcopal Church has to offer now. 

Paul Brown is a member of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring.